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Rostam + Joy Again

Rostam is the project of renowned multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij. Up until 2016, Batmanglij was best known as a member of Vampire Weekend, along with being the studio-genius behind the band’s unusual and ever evolving world-music-infused indie-pop sound. However, his penchant for expanding the palette of the pop world while still crafting catchy songs has also led him to work with popular artists like Solange, Frank Ocean, and Carly Rae Jepsen. Now, he has channeled his unique talent and experience into his own new endeavor, Rostam.

Half-Light, Rostam’s solo debut, finds the artist shuffling through snippets of memory in an attempt to identify and embrace the story of himself. He phrased his desired intent for the record as “trying to get the feeling of coming home from a trip.” In that sense, Half-Light is a retrospective journey, but it is more illustrative than narrative. It hones in on minute, impressionistic details of life as a young artist living in New York City and attempting to find himself in the arms of another. Rostam seems to be asking why these past moments keep coming back and why, in fact, they might matter.

The artist’s story is illustrated not just by its lyrics but also quite prominently by its music. Rostam has a particular relationship to the music of the record, as his reputation has mainly been built upon his prowess as a musician and producer. He employs the string arrangements, effected vocals, and crafty rhythms that have become his mark. Beyond reputation, though, this album at times serves as his effort, as a first generation Iranian-American individual, to reclaim Middle Eastern musical traditions. On “Wood,” he borrows from the Rast Panjgah tradition of Persian music but channels that sound in such a way that avoids the Western association he has observed between Middle Eastern music and moments of “terror, intrigue, or sorrow.” With unusual pointedness, Rostam uses music to explore and expand upon his own legacy, both cultural and artistic.

The album’s lyrics are the other side to Rostam’s self-story journey. Amid micro-memories of 14th Street, reading a week-old New Yorker in bed while watching a lover paint, and waking up confused in a friend’s basement, there are confessions of longing for belonging and for love. The half-light seems to be a space of intermingling loss and hope. Rostam’s retrospective journey pulls out the strands of light dying at the end of day as well as the light just being reborn at day’s beginning, depending upon the moment.

The album’s title track captures the album’s theme of love-loss as set off by the mysterious new light of morning:

“Baby, all the lights came up to illuminate the room
Blinded me,
I shut my eyes to see an imprint of you”

That theme comes to a head on “I Will See You Again.” The song begins with the singer’s hope of seeing his lover at “the dawn of all creation.” However, it concludes on the other side of half-light: “So I don’t think I will see you again at the station.” What happens in between, in the space of half-light? Rostam reflects upon the micro-memories that exist between the two poles of half-light:

“And I had seen it written on sidewalks
Across certain streets and in all of these spaces
Was a message some still choose not to read
In concrete now submerged in the pavement”

Here, it seems, is where Rostam reaches a point of confession on Half-Light. The truth, the hidden message of reality is one’s own experience. Sidewalk cracks, street signs, dreams, and the longing to hold a lover: these are not just events or feelings, but rather, they are shown to be the data that make up the story of a life.

Later, on “Hold You,” a continual longing for the never ending embrace of a lover is admitted over four starkly different musical backgrounds:

“And all of my life
And all of my life

I only ever wanted
To hold you”

Here, Rostam’s claim on the truth of his own story takes on increased significance. Perhaps the story he is telling is one of longing, but that does not mean it is incomplete or inadequate. The realization ostensibly hits: even though his arms may be bereft at night, there is light in the acceptance of the truth of one’s experience. Suffering does not unmake a story. Longing is only part of a story. Living robustly between the extremities of beginnings and endings, in the space of half-light, is enough.

—Daniel Hickey

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February 2018
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